Public wi-fi is a low-cost option to reach unserved citizens and grow the economy
The Central government’s move to enable public wi-fi data service through small retail data offices can get many more people connected, just as long-distance telephony was expanded through STD public call offices over three decades ago. Bringing broadband Internet to remote locations at minimum investment, and giving subscribers the option of making small, need-based payments to use it has remained a challenge thus far, but the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM WANI) scheme approved by the Union Cabinet aims to bridge that divide using wireless technologies. Potentially, Internet access will connect a new wave of users not just to commercial and entertainment options, but also to education, telehealth and agriculture extension, and bring greater accountability to government by boosting transparency and interactivity. The government is hoping that by cutting through layers of bureaucracy and eliminating licences and fees, it can make it easy even for a tea shop owner to register online as a service provider, opening up new income avenues. Three years ago, when TRAI outlined the plan and initiated the first pilot of a public wi-fi system on the WANI architecture, it noted that a 10% rise in net penetration led to a 1.4% increase in GDP. Public wi-fi, however, suffered neglect because it was seen as a competitor to data services sold by mobile telecom firms, rather than as the complementary technology it is.
A rapid scale-up of Internet in rural India will be transformative, given the low level of penetration — 27.57 subscribers per 100 population in 2019 – and wi-fi linked to broadband fibre service is the fastest route to achieving that. Upcoming mobile technologies such as 5G may provide good quality data, but they involve high investment in new spectrum, connectivity equipment and regular subscriber fees. The WANI system offers an elegant way forward to connect low revenue consumers. It opens up opportunities for community organisations, libraries, educational institutions, panchayats and small entrepreneurs to tap into a whole new ecosystem, purchasing bandwidth from a public data office aggregator to serve local consumers. What the citizen expects is robust service, protection of data integrity, transparency on commercial use of data, and security against cyberattacks. The government must also ensure true unbundling of hardware, software, apps and payment gateways in the WANI system, as advocated by TRAI, to prevent monopolies. Existing public wi-fi options run on a limited scale by some entities compel consumers to pay through a single gateway app, underscoring the need for reform. Executed properly, the public data offices (PDOs) of PM WANI can do what the PCOs did for phone calls, going well beyond ‘ease of doing business’ to genuinely empower citizens.